10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America:  Antietam


*In 1860 the Democrats were split.  Northern Democrats, hoping to preserve the Union by serving as a national party opposed to the sectional Republicans, supported Stephen Douglas.  Southern fire-eaters, however, despised him for not strongly supporting the expansion of slavery into the Great Plains (although he did not entire oppose it).


*At the Democratic Convention in Charleston, Southern delegates walked out, effectively ending the convention before a candidate could be chosen.   Northern Democrats then met in Baltimore and nominated Stephen Douglas.  Feeling that their fellow Democrats had gone behind their back, Southern Democrats convened a rival convention in the same city, and nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, a future Confederate general.


*Another group, composed mostly of Southerners who wanted to save the Union, primarily old Whigs who did not fit into the new, northern, openly anti-slavery Republican Party, created the Constitutional Union Party to elect a compromise candidate, John Bell of Tennessee.


*At the Republican convention in Chicago, Seward, the most prominent member of the party, expected to be nominated.  However, his appeals to a ‘Higher Law’ than the Constitution had made him seem too radical, as did his belief in Abolition as opposed to simply being a Free-Soiler.


*There were a number of other possible Republican candidates, each representing some different region of the country or faction of the Republican Party—but each also displeased some faction or region, until Abraham Lincoln was chosen as a compromise candidate—although he later put many of his rivals in his cabinet, both to use their talents and to keep an eye on them.


*Regarding slavery, the Republican Party officially just wanted Free Soil—no expansion of slavery, but they promised not to interfere with it where it existed.  However, some Republicans did want complete and immediate abolition, and many Southerners feared that Lincoln would try to end slavery immediately and without compensation, and many threatened to leave the Union if Lincoln, a candidate purely for the North, was elected. 



*In the election of 1860, voter turnout was 81.2%, the highest in American history at that point, and the second-highest ever.


*Lincoln won the election, although with less than 40% of the popular vote.


Lincoln:  1,865,593 popular votes, 180 electoral votes

Douglas:  1,382,713 popular votes, 12 electoral votes

Breckinridge:  848,356 popular votes, 72 electoral votes

Bell:  592,906 popular votes, 39 electoral votes


*Worse than his victory with only 40% of the popular vote, Lincoln won without a single Southern vote—he was not even on the ballot in most Southern states.  Many southerners became convinced that even if Lincoln never interfered with slavery, some future Republican might, because it seemed like the South had lost any political power in the United States.


*Lincoln was elected in November 1860.  On 20 December, at 1:15 in the afternoon, South Carolina dissolved her bonds with the Union.  The rationale was that South Carolina had always been a free state and a sovereign state, only allied with the other United States as long as it was mutually beneficial to be so. 


*President Buchanan did nothing.


*In the long period between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, six more states seceded.  In January, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana left the Union (in that order), and in February, Texas did so as well.  On the other hand, while seven slave-owning states may have left the Union, eight more remained in it, although it certainly seemed possible that some of them might leave, too.


*Meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861, representatives of these states created a provisional constitution and government for the Confederate States of America.  Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was chosen President.


--Show Buchannan and Lincoln biographies


*President Buchanan did nothing, and so the crisis was not resolved by the time Lincoln was sworn in. 


*Initially, both sides waited to see what the other would do.  The South only wanted to be left alone, and Lincoln, although he wanted to keep the Union together, feared that using force to do so might result in more states leaving the Union.  There was also, he feared, insufficient support in the North for a war, as many Northerners did not want to die in a war over slavery.


*Lincoln did swear to defend all Federal installations in the South that were still held by the Union Army.  There were four of these:  Fort Sumter at Charleston, Fort Pickens at Pensacola, and Forts Taylor and Jefferson off Key West.  The most important of these was Fort Sumter.  Sumter, in turn, was defended by US Soldiers commanded by Robert Anderson, and Lincoln announced he was going to send a ship to re-supply it.


*The South was in a bind.  If Sumter was re-supplied, the Union flag would remain in Charleston and the South's most important Atlantic port could be blockaded.  However, if they attacked the fort, they would have begun the war.  After an emergency meeting in Montgomery, the Confederate government felt they could not allow this.  General Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter for 34 hours, beginning at 4:30 a.m. 12 April, 1861.  No-one was killed, Anderson surrendered, and the War began.


*Lincoln’s plan had worked.  Pressure on the South had pushed the CSA into firing the first shot, and the North was outraged.  On 15 April, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion by force.  This in turn infuriated the South, who felt they were about to be invaded.  In both the North and South the majority of the people felt the time for reason had ended and rejected further attempts at negotiation and compromise.  Army and militia recruiters got more volunteers than they could handle, to the point they had to turn them away.   


*Moreover, this call for volunteers offended the Border States, who had not wanted to leave the Union, but were willing to let their fellow Southerners go if they wanted to, and would not let the South be invaded by the armies of the tyrant Lincoln, especially as he would have to march through them to do so.


*On 17 April, Virginia seceded and the Confederate capital was soon moved to Richmond, less than 100 miles from Washington.  In May, North Carolina and Arkansas followed.  On 8 June, Tennessee joined the Confederacy, too, despite strong opposition in East Tennessee (there had also been opposition in Middle Tennessee before Lincoln's call for volunteers).


*In parts of many Southern states, especially in the Appalachian Mountains, poor whites did not want to go to war to prop up the wealthy slave-owners who they felt had dismembered the Union.  In 1861 West Virginia voted to secede from Virginia and asked for admission to the Union as a new state, and was accepted as such in 1863. 


*Some East Tennesseans wanted to do the same thing, but the US Army was not able to help them (as it did the people of West Virginia).


*Other slave-owning Border States, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri did remain in the Union, although each of them did have a secessionist movement too, and all of them saw violence, and Lincoln had to be cautious not to move too quickly against slavery for fear of alienating slave-owners who had stayed loyal to the Union and driving even more states to secede.


*Besides, Lincoln insisted his goal was simply to preserve the Union, not to end slavery.


*When the War began, both sides had advantages, although in a material sense, the North had more.














Good roads

22,000 miles of RR

Many canals

Bad roads

9,000 miles of RR

Few canals

Sea power


No navy


22 million

5.5 million white

3.5 million slaves

During the course of the War, about 2.9 million Americans would serve in either the US or CS military, almost 2 million in the USA and 950,000 in the CSA.


*Established government


*Superior economy and diversified industry


*Excellent transportation system


*Large population


*800,000 immigrants to replace losses

*European help?  CSA offered tariff-free cotton to Britain

*Defensive war

*Interior lines

*Superior morale

*The Cause:  Independence, Home, and Family (although States’ Rights would also prove to be a problem)


*Military tradition, strong state militia system, several state military schools, brilliant leaders


*When the War began, the Commanding General of the US Army was that veteran of 1812, the Conqueror of Mexico, ‘Old Fuss and Feathers’ himself, Winfield Scott, the highest-ranked officer in the US Army since Washington.  By now, though, he was 75 years old.  At his age he frequently fell asleep in meetings and was so fat he could not get on a horse. 


*Knowing that he could not command an army in the field, he told Lincoln that the man who should command the Union Armies was his old aide from the Mexican War, Robert E. Lee of Virginia.  Lee was offered the job on 17 April, 1861, but declined, refusing to draw a sword against his native state, which was voting on secession that very day. 


*Instead, command of Federal troops in Washington was given to General Irvin McDowell, a supply officer with no experience leading troops in combat.


*Even if Scott did not get the battlefield commander he wanted, he was still the man with the plan, specifically, what came to be called the Anaconda Plan, so-called because it was meant to choke off and strangle the South slowly but surely, like its name-snake. 


*First, the US Navy would surround the South, blockading the Confederacy to prevent it from selling cotton or importing desperately needed supplies, such as British repeating rifles. 


*Second, the US would seize the Mississippi River, cutting the Confederacy in half. 


*Only when the South had been weakened in this way would it be seriously invaded; Scott’s original plan focused on devastating the Southern interior, while later versions of the plan, more interested in a dramatic victory, shouted ‘On to Richmond!’  Most Yankees (like most Southerners) thought the War would be over quickly, and, although they implemented the blockade, they then skipped straight to the last part of the plan, thinking the rest too slow and boring.  Indeed, the term 'Anaconda Plan' was first applied in derision by people who wanted faster action.


*In the end, the plan was successful, and although he had been forced into retirement by ambitious younger generals, Scott lived to see its fulfilment.



*The newly-promoted Brigadier General Irvin McDowell was ordered towards Richmond, first testing the Confederates’ strength by attacking the railroad junction at a town called Manassas Junction along the Bull Run Creek.


*Manassas was defended by about 24,000 troops under PGT Beauregard, hero of Fort Sumter.  McDowell was new to command and his troops were undisciplined, so they took their time getting to Manassas.  It was also no secret that there was going to be a battle, or even where the battle was to take place.  Congressmen, Senators, judges, and other Washington dignitaries took their wives, their children, their servants, and a picnic lunch down to Virginia to see the show.


*Aware of the impending attack, Beauregard was able to prepare to an extent (although his troops were mostly inexperienced militiamen), and, more important, another Confederate force of about 11,000 under the command of Joseph Johnston was able to move by rail directly to the scene of the battle, reinforcing Beauregard as the fighting went on.  The two forces met on 21 July, 1861.


*The battle was a mess in many ways.  Neither side was, for the most part, well-trained.  Uniforms were not yet standardised, so some Confederates wore blue and some Yankees wore grey, and some men on both sides wore other colours completely.  There were cases of soldiers approaching and overrunning their enemies because they were not recognised, and of men being shot by their own side for the same reason.  The confusion of the Stars and Strips with the Stars and Bars led to the creation of the Confederate Battle Flag.


*Initially outnumbered, the Confederates seemed to be losing.  However, they sent reinforcements into battle directly off the trains as they arrived.  At one point, as the Confederates were withdrawing, General Barnard Elliot Bee of Texas saw one brigade of Virginia troops, led by General Thomas Jackson, standing against the tide.  He said ‘There stands Jackson like a stone wall.  Rally behind the Virginians!’  The Confederates stopped retreating and began to fight back.  Jackson was known as 'Stonewall' ever afterwards.


*Facing stiff resistance and a new load of troops off the trains, the Federal troops turned and ran back to Washington, D.C.  Had the Confederate army been better organised, they might have pursued them and ended the war right there, but they were not really any better prepared than their foes.


*The North had about 2,900 casualties and the South about 2,000.  The Federal Army was also so demoralised that no major battles were be fought for the rest of the year.  They did not invade the South, and the South did not need to invade the North.


*This battle demonstrated to the North that they were in for a long and bloody war, but also gave the South a false sense of security.


*The first battle of the Civil War, like so many to come, was in large part so bloody because most Americans were now using rifles firing so-called Minie Balls (actually an early type of bullet designed to fit a rifle), which had a useful range easily up to 500 yards, and could travel much farther.  Rifles were also more reliable, because they used percussion caps rather than flint and steel.  However, the generals had all learnt to fight like Napoleon, and used line tactics much like those used in the Revolutionary War, planning to fire a few volleys and then charge with the bayonet.  This led to many deaths that might have been avoided, or at least been somewhat more purposeful, if the tactics had more closely suited the weapons available.  About 90% of the casualties in the Civil War were inflicted by rifles while less than 1% were actually inflicted with bayonets. 


*McDowell was removed from command after his loss at Manassas and was replaced by George McClellan.  McClellan was a graduate of West Point and had served in Mexico.  He would prove to be an able administrator but a poor commander.  He was also an able politician, and used his influence to pressure Winfield Scott into retirement in November, and soon afterwards became Commanding General of the United States Army.


*McClellan named the main army in the eastern theatre the Army of the Potomac, and proceeded to train, supply, and equip it into a magnificent fighting force.  However, Little Mac faced an enemy even greater than his army:  his imagination.  Despite all the evidence to the contrary, McClellan would always be convinced that the Confederate Army was possessed of a vast numerical superiority to his own.


*As 1861 passed into 1862 with no significant Federal action in the East, Lincoln grew impatient with McClellan, and told him that if McClellan did not plan to use the Army of the Potomac any time soon, he would like to borrow it. 



*Even after Lincoln ordered McClellan to attack, he was afraid to go at it directly by marching from Washington to Richmond.  He tried to get around the main Confederate Army in Northern Virginia by sailing down to Yorktown, on 17 March, 1862.


*McClellan actually did get around the main Confederate army, but he did not believe in his own success.  He planned to move up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers and seize the Confederate capital at Richmond, in what has come to be called the Peninsular Campaign, but his army of 100,000 was outnumbered by 15,000 Confederates and McClellan’s own imagination.


*McClellan was actually faced by about 15,000 Confederate troops commanded by John Magruder, who built fake cannon out of logs called Quaker guns.  He held McClellan off long enough for Joseph Johnston to move his army to the peninsula.  Together, they kept McClellan around Yorktown for almost a month.


*During the battles on the peninsula, McClellan won most of the battles or at least fought them to a draw.  However, the battles were numerous and very bloody.  Furthermore, relatively early in the campaign, Confederate General Joseph Johnston was wounded and relieved of command.  Johnston later said this was the best thing that ever happened to the Confederacy, because he was replaced by Robert E. Lee.


*Lee renamed his army the Army of Northern Virginia, and began to fight back.


*Lee pushed McClellan hard, and attacked him many times and in many places, primarily in a series of very bloody battles, lasting from 26 June to 2 July, called the Seven Days. 


*Although McClellan won most of the battles in the Seven Days (making it one of the few Eastern campaigns with significantly higher Confederate casualties than Union losses--20,141 Confederate casualties compared to 15,849 Union casualties), the constant pressure on McClellan, combined with his incorrect certainty that the Confederates outnumbered him, forced him to retreat, abandon the peninsula, and return to Washington.


*Lincoln was understandably vexed with McClellan, and many of his advisors wanted McClellan removed, but Lincoln still thought he might be useful.  McClellan also still had many political allies and was popular with his troops, so he remained in command of the Army of the Potomac, although some of his troops were taken away from him and sent to invade Virginia under General John Pope. 


*Aware of the Federal forces’ movements, Lee sent Stonewall Jackson against Pope, and they met near Manassas on 28 August, 1862.  Lee joined him the next day, and on the 30th, Pope’s force of 75,000 was defeated in Second Manassas or Second Bull Run by a Confederate force totalling about 55,000. 


*Pope was sent out west to fight Indians, and his men were given back to McClellan.


*On the other hand, things were going better for the Union in the West.  The North had seized New Orleans on 1 May, 1862, and following victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and the incredibly bloody battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, General Ulysses S. Grant had seized control of Nashville, Memphis, and most of the rest of West and Middle Tennessee.


*Lincoln had even named Andrew Johnson military governor of Tennessee, because he was a Tennessean who had served as governor before and, most importantly, had been in the U.S> Senate when Tennessee left the Union and proved to be the only Senator from a Southern state to stay loyal to the Union.


*Grant then moved south to try to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, which would give the North control of the entire Mississippi River.


*In New Orleans, and elsewhere, the Union forces began freeing slaves, saying they were contraband, or war materiel that it was necessary to seize from the Confederates to hurt their war efforts.  Although usually obliged to work for the Army, often in unpleasant jobs, most slaves preferred this to slavery.


*This created an awkward position for Lincoln.  Although he did not like slavery, he did not feel that the Constitution let him abolish it, and he did not want to offend the Border States that had remained more or less loyal, and that still held slaves.  He had said that if he could save the Union by freeing all of the slaves, he would do it; if he could do it by freeing some, he would do it; if he could save the Union without freeing any slaves, he would do it.  However, many Northerners, especially in the Republican Party, certainly wanted to free the slaves, and they, and Lincoln, considered justifying the move on the grounds of hurting the Confederate war effort.


*Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free all slaves in areas presently in rebellion (but not in Union-controlled Confederate areas or in loyal states).  His cabinet advised him not to make it public, however, until the US had won a sufficient victory that it did not just seem like a last-ditch act of desperation or an attempt to raise a slave revolt.


*The South also needed a grand gesture.  While Southerners had hoped they might get help from Europe, it had not come yet.  Southern leaders felt that the South needed to win a major victory outside the South, so Lee invaded Maryland.


*Maryland was a Border State, and many of its people were thought to be loyal to the South.  It was hoped that Marylanders would help the Army of Northern Virginia.  It was also hoped that the Confederates could beat the Army of the Potomac and possibly even capture, or at least threaten, Washington, D.C. itself.


*One Confederate officer made a fatal mistake.  Some junior officer dropped a piece of paper that he had wrapped around three cigars.  That paper was a copy of Special Order No. 191:  Lee’s battle plan and general orders for his army.  It was found later by a sergeant in the Army of the Potomac, and brought to McClellan.  It told him everything he needed to know about Lee’s army and his plans, but because it said that Lee had fewer men than he imagined (in fact, McClellan outnumbered Lee about 87,000 to 40,000) he was reluctant to believe it or to act.


*When he finally moved, McClellan was able to catch Lee at a town called Sharpsburg, along the Antietam River.  On 17 September, 1862, they fought across the river, with the Union trying desperately all day to cross it and hold the field.


--Introduce Antietam

-Antietam is the fourth in a 10 episode documentary series produced by the History Channel in 2006.  It tells the story of the Battle of Antietam and a little bit about the Emancipation Proclamation.  Overall it does a good job, although it does take a number of modern photographs of re-enactors and use a filter to make them look like photographs from the time, which can be slightly mis-leading.


--Show Antietam


*The Battle of Antietam was a terribly bloody battle, and remains the bloodiest single day in American military history, with over 26,000 men killed or wounded. 


*Had McClellan moved his reserves into battle instead of holding them back to defend against additional Confederate forces who existed only in his imagination, he might have won.  Instead, the battle was technically a draw, but Lee’s forces were so badly hurt that he withdrew back to Virginia, so that strategically the invasion of Maryland was a failure.  However, had McClellan moved quickly in response, he could have completely defeated Lee rather than letting him escape to fight for almost three more years.


*Lincoln removed McClellan from command permanently, replacing him with Ambrose Burnside who had led troops at Antietam, but he still called this a Union victory, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which would take effect on 1 January, 1863.


*Although the Emancipation Proclamation officially freed slaves in rebellious areas, largely in the hope that they would revolt, few did.  Many slaves did run away to freedom, often to join the Union Army, which began accepting African-American volunteers in 1863.  About 180,000 Coloured troops ultimately served during the way, often bravely despite poor treatment by much of the US Army (including unequal pay) and the knowledge that they would be killed if captured by the South. 


*The Proclamation was more effective as a symbol than a law, but it was a powerful symbol indeed.  After this, European governments could not easily side with the Confederacy, whereas Britain and France had been on the verge of recognising the Confederate States when the invasion of Maryland began.


*Burnside knew that McClellan had been too cautious.  He, too, was cautious by nature, but felt that he must invade Virginia.  He built a bridge of pontoon boats across the Rappahannock River just outside Fredericksburg, Virginia.  This took a long time, and gave Lee time to position his forces (78,000 men) just beyond the town, on a low ridge called Marye’s Heights, and in places they even were able to shelter behind a stone wall. 


*When Burnside finally got across the river, he ordered a charge against the Confederate position on 13 December, which was beaten back by the rifles and cannon of the Confederacy.  Not to be outdone, he ordered wave after wave, sending a total of fourteen charges against the wall, all of which were defeated before they ever reached it. 


*Some units lost half their men or more, and many living men were trapped on the field overnight, afraid to move lest they be seen and shot.  Some used the coats of their dead comrades as blankets, and others piled up dead men as walls against Confederate bullets. 


*On the 14th, Burnside considered leading his old IX Corps in one last attack on the wall, but was dissuaded by his officers.


*Fredericksburg was a great Confederate victory.  The Union suffered over 13,000 casualties, compared to about 4,200 for the Confederacy.  Burnside retreated across the river on 15 December, 1862, and was replaced soon afterwards by Joseph Hooker, who had also led forces at Antietam.  

This page last updated 14 September, 2019.
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